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Area parks, historic sites cope with budget cuts
Interpretative ranger Julia Autry, left, hands a receipt to Judy McLure and daughter Valerie, 15, during a visit to the Gold Museum in Dahlonega Tuesday. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

As vacationers in North Georgia travel to the area’s state parks and historic sites this summer, they might notice the effects of budget cuts and dwindling state support, some park managers said.

In fiscal year 2010, state appropriations to the Department of Natural Resources were cut by nearly 40 percent, which resulted in furloughs, reduced hours and reduced staffs, said Kim Hatcher, spokeswoman for Georgia State Parks and Historic Sites.

She said reductions for fiscal year 2011 weren’t as steep, but state agencies were recently asked to prepare for additional 4 percent cuts in August.

Randy Gambrell, assistant park manager at Vogel State Park in Blairsville, said travelers will continue to feel the effects of these cuts.

“We just can’t buy the upkeep on the grounds,” Gambrell said. “We had to cut a lot of corners maintaining the facilities. We just don’t have the money to maintain them. There’s rotten wood, rotten roof systems.”

He said he gets some negative comments, but there’s nothing he can do.

“Right now, we’re on a stand still for our budget,” he said. “We can’t purchase anything unless it’s critical to the park’s operation.”

Overall, he said visitation to the park has decreased, with weeklong stays in particular seeing more cancellations. He also said visitors don’t spend as much money on extra attractions, such as mini golf or paddle boats.

But for Gambrell, there’s hope in the fact that “friends” memberships have increased recently.

Purchasing the membership gives money directly back to the park, Gambrell said.

“People are concerned about the park,” he said. “They feel the park is part of their own, and they want the money coming back to Vogel.”

In Dahlonega, this same level of kinship has shielded the Gold Museum historic site from budgetary cut backs.

Last summer, the museum was closed Mondays and Tuesdays until it was able to form a partnership with the community to find the funding needed to keep the site open. That partnership allows the museum to be open seven days a week this summer, said Julia Autry, interpretive ranger at the museum.

She said volunteers have also helped cover the museum duties the site’s three full-time employees and three part-time employees cannot take on.

“They help tremendously,” Autry said. “There’s a volunteer almost every day to assist us with visitors.”

And the number of visitors to the museum increased slightly this June.

Unicoi State Park and Lodge in Helen is also seeing more visitors, lodge General Manager Jerry Brown said.

“We think that more people are staying closer to home but still wanting to travel and do things with their families,” Brown said. “We really appeal to families.”

To date, the park has seen an increase of more than 80,000 visitors from last year.

But the park is short staffed.

Through recent budget cuts, the park lost five employees and 20 were reduced to part-time positions, Brown said.

“We really have to do more with less,” he said. “And we’ve been able to do that quite successfully. It’s very seldom that we hear from a guest any concerns, them noticing that we’re short on staff.”

Amicalola Falls State Park in Dawsonville is running into some of the same problems.

They’ve already seen an increase in reservations for October, but they’re also dealing with a more than 30 percent decrease in personnel, park manager Bill Tanner said.

“We just hope the folks stay strong and that we’re able to get through as far as the budget and that we don’t have any major unexpected expenses,” Tanner said. “October will be a challenge, but it will be one that we’re used to.”